Chippendales: The Indian whose American strip club empire ended in murder
- author, Meryl Sebastian
- duty, BBC News
Muscular men wearing bow ties and thongs to entertain women in smoky clubs is not a legacy that an Indian-American immigrant usually associates with.
But Mumbai-born Steve Banerjee changed the traditional South Asian American dream when he founded the men’s strip club Chippendales in Los Angeles in 1979.
The rest is history: Banerjee made his fortune with what turned out to be a successful franchise. Add in sex, drugs and murder, and Banerjee’s story becomes a sensational legend.
In India, Banerjee – and her work – is virtually unknown. In the United States, the Chippendales brand seems to have outlived its controversial founder’s reputation. This situation is changing.
Nearly three decades after her death, a podcast and a host of TV shows — including Hulu’s latest drama series, Welcome To Chippendales, starring Kumail Nanjiani — are revisiting Banerjee’s story.
“Most people think that the founder of the Chippendales was an outgoing party boy who chased women, did drugs and drank heavily,” said Scott MacDonald, co-author of the 2014 book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders.
“Steve is a reserved and controlled person, whose goal is clearly to create a global brand capable of competing with Disney, Playboy or Polo.”
He’s “a unique piece of history,” says historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, whose podcast, Welcome to Your Fantasy, has renewed interest in the Chippendales’ legacy. Gorgeous, dark and athletic, Banerjee contrasts with the “white, blond, California man” fantasy that her franchise sells.
If you watch the Hulu series, the rest of this story may contain spoilers.
Born into a family of printers, Banerjee moved from India to Canada in the late 1960s, when she was in her twenties. He soon found himself in California, where he owned a gas station in Los Angeles.
Banerjee, however, has bigger ambitions. “I want to drive this car,” he would say when people came to fill up their luxury cars, Mr Petrzela explained.
In the 1970s, Banerjee used her savings to buy a dive bar in LA that she called Destiny II, and tried everything to attract people – backgammon games, magic shows and women’s mud fights.
In 1979, Paul Snider, a nightclub promoter, suggested that Banerjee bring in male strippers – usually found only in gay clubs – for a show aimed at women.
In the meantime, the bar was renamed Chippendales to suggest a better experience.
Strip shows are advertised all over West Los Angeles, wherever women congregate, from nail salons to women’s bathrooms, Petrzela explained on his podcast.
An instant success, the Chippendales quickly attracted large crowds of women every night.
Inspired by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy bunnies, the dancers wore cuffs and collars with tight black pants.
For 1980s America, “it was shocking,” Petrzela said. But in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1970s, Banerjee’s Chippendales also emerged at a time when women’s empowerment and sexual liberation could be commercialized, the historian explains.
Women needed a place where “they could have fun and be innocent,” said club promoter Barbara Ligeti in the A&E documentary series Secrets of the Chippendales Murders. “They can see each other, have a few drinks, pinch an ass, put $20 in a handsome man’s belt.”
Banerjee wanted to create a “Disneyland for Adults”, a brand big enough to rival its heroes – Hefner and Walt Disney.
In the early 80s, he met Nick De Noia, an Emmy Award-winning director and choreographer, who convinced him that the show needed an upgrade. Chippendales dancers and producers credit De Noia with turning the show into an interactive theatrical production using characters and storylines.
De Noia helped bring the Chippendales to New York City and expand the production across America with a successful tour.
But things quickly soured between the pair, with the charismatic choreographer becoming the face of the brand – dubbed “Mr. Chippendale” in the media – while Banerjee, who runs the operation from Los Angeles, remains.
As tensions escalate, De Noia and Banerjee dissolve their partnership and the choreographer plans to start his own company, US Male.
In the documentary series, the former Chippendales co-producer, who helped De Noia with his new venture, said Banerjee “cracked”.
Many who knew Banerjee described her as a “paranoid” person for whom success was a zero-sum game. “He felt that if others were successful, it necessarily reduced his own success,” said Mr Petrzela.
When rival strip clubs emerge, Banerjee hires hitman-turned-friend Ray Colon to sabotage the competitors.
In 1987, under orders from Banerjee, Colon recruited an accomplice who shot De Noia in his office.
While her friends and colleagues suspected Banerjee’s hand in the crime, it took years for FBI investigators to make the connection.
Banerjee’s lawyer, Bruce Nahin, said “the killing does not affect the brand at all”.
The Chippendales thrived and traveled to Australia and Europe. In 1991, while in the UK with the Chippendales tour, Banerjee asked Colon to remove members of a rival troupe created by ex-dancers from his club.
According to FBI evidence, the plan was to inject them with cyanide that Colon gave to an accomplice named Strawberry.
But a concerned Strawberry reported Colon to the FBI.
Colon was arrested and charged with conspiracy and murder for others. According to the agency, 46 grams of cyanide were found in a raid on Colon’s house.
For months after his arrest, Colon remained loyal to Banerjee, who pleaded not guilty. “It wasn’t until Steve refused to help him by paying a lawyer that Ray finally broke up with Steve,” MacDonald said.
In 1993, the FBI finally gathered enough evidence against Banerjee by using Colon to secretly record their conversation. Banerjee was arrested for racketeering, conspiracy and murder at work, among other charges. He is not guilty.
After the trial lasted several months, Banerjee accepted a plea deal – 26 years in prison and forfeiture of the Chippendales’ property to the US government.
According to Mr. Petrzela, Banerjee’s lawyers did everything possible to prevent the seizure of the business, but to no avail. In October 1994, a day before her sentence, Banerjee committed suicide in her prison cell.
“Very few American Indians know its history,” said Anirvan Chatterjee, who runs a radical South Asian history tour in Berkeley. Banerjee’s life is “the mirror version of the typical business story in California in the 1990s,” she says, and it defies all the stereotypes about that community.
In her research, Ms. Petrzela that Banerjee did everything to assimilate and become a true California businessman, but in the memories of her interviewees, her Indian accent stood out.
“It was clear that other people always considered him very foreign and very Indian,” he said. “Even in death, the first thing people do when they comment on him is start imitating his accent.”